Relationship Counsellor and Life Coach Chris Pye suggests three keys to uncoupling without trauma.
“We really need help”, she began.
“Not to stay together, but to separate.”
It was one of my free introductory counselling sessions. Prospective clients connect for an exploratory half hour, to find out how I might support them.
This was not an unfamiliar request. People often access my services to negotiate the complex territory of relationship separation and avoid things descending into bitter acrimony.
Endings hold emotional weight for most of us because they connect us to historical experiences of grief, loss and abandonment. Often our intimate partner relationships provide opportunities to address and repair old attachment wounds.
But when a relationship becomes shaky, it can trigger a trauma response, escalating conflict, as we strive to get our attachment needs met.
The end of a significant relationship can be further complicated when partners disagree about the need for separation. It is not uncommon for one partner to seek support on their own. Meanwhile, the other strenuously avoids a conversation that may confirm their worst fears.
No Such Thing as Pain-free
When we invest significant time and emotional energy into a relationship, there is no such thing as a pain-free withdrawal. Perhaps the biggest price we pay for the richness of emotional connection with other humans is the experience of grief and loss if, and when, those connections dissolve.
The aim of relationship counselling is not to eradicate pain. Sometimes it is important to make more space for difficult feelings. When we allow ourselves to sit with them, we can start to make conscious choices about how to move forward in alignment with the core values we hold.
It Doesn’t Have to be Traumatic
Increasingly in our broad LGBTIQ+ community, separation is negotiated within family systems that include children. The impacts of relationship conflict and breakdown can be felt deeply by those who look to us for safety and security. It takes conscious commitment and skilled support to manage one’s own emotional turmoil, whilst putting the needs of children at the centre.
Separation need not be traumatic for children. In fact, it can be an opportunity for us to model the ability to experience conflict and pain and still express them with respect and care for one another. Change can be challenging for the little people in our lives. It is important for them to know that the love and support of their significant adults is the constant that will sustain them as they muddle through this unknown territory.
Three Essential Keys
There can be worse choices than deciding to move on from a relationship that is not providing emotional support and sustenance. Here are my three essential keys for negotiating relationship endings and transformations:
1. Seek Individual Support
During the rawness of a separation, it is important for both/all parties to draw on support from friends, family and counsellors, where possible. Whilst your partner/s might once have been your ‘go-to’, things are changing. You will both/all need space to navigate your individual journeys
2. Find Time to Feel
Being stoic has its place. You may develop an ability to compartmentalise your difficult emotions, to function at work, or provide emotional stability for children. But completely suppressing your emotions will not be helpful in the long term. So try to allow yourself time to feel, as you move through the process.
3. Reconnect with Values
A crisis is an opportunity to re-affirm our core values, asking ourselves “who do I want to be in this situation?”
Values can be an anchor in stormy weather, helping us to not completely lose our bearings. Start each day by reminding yourself of those qualities you will strive to embody as you face the challenges of this day.
Chris Pye is a Relationship Counsellor and Life Coach who works with individuals, couples, and teams, creating safe and supportive spaces for difficult conversations. To book a free ‘first-step conversation’, go to A Single Step.
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